In searching for appropriate educational models to enhance the spiritual development of children and youth, it is helpful to consider the learning model embedded in traditional ritual practices, particularly those that were used in coming-of-age ceremonies and other rites of passage in religious and traditional cultural settings. Rites of passage are cultural and spiritual ceremonies and practices used to mark changes in the station or status of persons in communities. They include ceremonies such as marriage, funeral rites, birth and naming, as well as coming-of-age rituals. They can include investiture or membership ceremonies, graduation rituals, and so on. In religious communities, ceremonies like confirmations, baptisms and their variations are combined rites of passage and investiture rites.
Ritual practices serve a variety of functions in a community, and are based on an educational or pedagogical model that assumes learning takes place through participation. Rites of passage are designed to make clear that one or more members of a community are changing their status or place in the community. The ceremony serves to make a public declaration of the change of status in order to affirm it for the participants, whose new status is ceremonialized, and to inform the rest of the community so that the new status is accepted and respected. A marriage ritual, for example, makes clear that two individuals have become a couple and that their choice is being acknowledged communally. The community is being told, through ceremony, that these two are no longer single and available. They will now be treated in light of their new status as a couple, assured that their choices and intentions are known and honored by the community. The ceremony also acts to remind others in the community of the commitments or promises that they have made in the past. The promises being made in the ceremony recall and renew the vows they made in the past.
Communal rituals usually include spiritual components that connect the participants and the community to powers beyond themselves and across time. There are often deliberate religious practices including prayer, singing, chanting, or drumming, invocation of the Divine, and a recall of traditional stories, teachings, texts, and ancestors. There is cultural wisdom in ritual practices that marks clear borders for people's lives that function, at the same time, as a conserving and renewing force within a community.
COMING OF AGE
The implications for spiritual development and education of children and youth can be better understood with an explanation of a rite of passage: coming of age. Many cultures have practiced specific ceremonial and ritualistic processes to mark the move from childhood into the beginning of adult life. During the years of puberty, the time of coming of age, there is an awareness that the physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social changes happening to boys and girls made them open to being influenced by the world around them. In this time of transition, they are pliable, amenable to being shaped by their context. In leaving childhood and its assurances, children enter a period of uncertainty and questioning in which they are seeking to form adult identities. In response, cultures develop deliberate experiential learning practices and rituals that shape these youth into a form that is appropriate and necessary for their culture. The aim is to imprint on the lives of these youth the adult form or shape of the culture's way of thinking, its values and meanings, as well as its spiritual and religious assumptions. The goal is to produce from boys and girls successful adult men and women who can sustain and build their community and its ways of life, its values, its beliefs, and its meanings.
In any rite of passage there are three stages. The first is leaving. Children leave behind their childhood and its context, relationships, and ways as they take up the responsibilities and roles of adult life. The departure means that what they are will not be sufficient for the next stage of life. In some way their childhood self dies, and they take up a new self through the process. The middle or liminal stage is the time of transition, now called adolescence, and is the critical time in a rite of passage as it is the time of change. The liminal time (meaning the in-the-doorway space) is considered by some to be a dangerous place (and time) because it is an in-between state in which the youth in passage are open, vulnerable, and pliable. They are no longer rooted or located in the past of childhood, and they are not yet anchored in the new stage. Current culture acknowledges that children change developmentally. In contrast, past cultures believed that the character was naturally transformed and lives were consequently molded into a shape that would last into the future. A coming-of-age rite is designed to provide a way through or a passage for this journey.
It is necessary to guide a young person through matters of vocation, sexual identity, mortality, values, and meaning so that they became adults for their culture, aware of responsibilities, able to negotiate difficulty and take up a role that contributed to community life. The intentional cultural practices provided by elders assume that young people are vulnerable because they are in transition. Therefore, an educational process, complete with mentors and elders and a deliberate communal process full of theatre and ritual, is necessary.